When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. -John 20:19-31
On the evening of Easter, the disciples were still in darkness. Even after Mary Magdalene had told them that she had seen the risen Jesus, the male disciples were still locked inside their house in fear of the Jewish and Roman authorities. The gospel passage today is a continuation of the gospel on Easter: it’s not a new chapter but rather the epilogue to Mary Magdalene finding Jesus in the garden and being called by name. It seems intentional to me that the disciples’ fear is not really the beginning of the story, but rather right in the middle, after all possible assurances have been made that Jesus is alive.
A friend of mine said this week that usually by Easter Sunday they are pulled out of the funk that Holy Week puts them in, but that this year it has been harder to leave behind that feeling of darkness. The journey through Jesus’s death and resurrection remind us who we are, and sometimes that is a hard reminder. We are a fearful people, even in the face of our greatest joy. The disciples were promised eternal life, and sundown on Easter found them in a room locked from the inside, afraid of death.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and university professor, writes about her search for “real life” in her book Leaving Church. She writes, “You do not have to [literally] die in order to discover the truth… You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.”
If Lent is a reminder of our humanity, of the ashes that we came from and shall return to, then the Easter season is the perfect time to lose track of who we are. It’s a time to forget that we are fearful, and doubtful, and probably not listening to the women trying to tell us something. Easter is time to let Jesus into our locked rooms, whatever they may be, and rejoice. Easter is a time to lose track of who we think we are and remember that God has made us a resurrection people.
Of course, that is often easier said than done.
Last year for Easter I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, having just spent a month in a tiny village in Swaziland. Swaziland is a landlocked country inside of South Africa. Some fun facts: it’s the last absolute monarchy in the world. It’s population is almost 100% ethnically Swazi. It is one of the youngest countries in the world, with over 35% of the population age 14 or younger, and at the current rate of HIV and AIDS infection, the WHO has predicted that by 2050 Swaziland will most likely cease to exist.
Nsoko, the town where I lived, was less of a town and more of a collection of army barracks, mud huts, a couple of small shops, and a bus stop where 18-passenger vans called koombees would pick you up and, for about 25 U.S. cents, take you 30 kilometers down the road to Matata, a town with a grocery store. If you took a koombee to Matata, you drove through endless fields that were mostly dry and brown. The entirety of southern Africa was—and still is— in the middle of a decade-long drought, and Swaziland is among the countries hardest hit both physically and economically, because it’s main export is sugar cane.
I was in Swaziland for most of Lent, and it was easy to remember that we came from dust, because I was constantly dusty. Orange dirt stained everything, including but not limited to: my clothes, my tent, my journal, and the entire book of Proverbs in my Bible. All month, I helped with feeding programs and taught kindergarten lessons to children who came to a care point run by local grandmothers. Most of the kids were AIDS orphans, being raised by an older sibling or some other relative. In many cases, the food the kids got at the care point was the only meal they would have that day. It was easy to remember that we came from dust.
We left Swaziland for Johannesburg on Good Friday, which, as a metaphor for coming out of Lent, was a little too on-the-nose for me. It was a hard month to leave behind. There are a lot of clichés that I could say about my month in Swaziland (or my mission program in general), but the truth is harder to get a handle on. I did not grow in my own spiritual life because of the poverty I saw around me, although it would be easy to say that. I did not learn to trust God in everything because of the faith of the Swazi people, although it would also be easy to say that. The truth is that on Easter last year, I was still in a locked room. As much as I wanted to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, in his blood poured out for me and for many for the forgiveness of sins, and in his emptying of the tomb, I was fearful. I doubted that the kingdom of God could ever come to earth in such a powerful way that these vast inequalities would be righted.
The doubt and fear might look different for you. I spent a year on an international mission trip. Maybe you spent a year trying to get pregnant, or trying to get sober, or trying to get a handle on your depression or anxiety. Maybe whatever’s inside your locked room is so private, so tender, that you haven’t even said the words out loud. It is easier to lock the doors than to believe against all hope that joy is coming. Clutching tight to all the threads we’re afraid of unraveling is sometimes easier than lying down on that dirt floor basement and waiting to see who we really are.
But I’m mixing metaphors. All of this is to say, this year I have a new sympathy for Thomas.
We don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, and this is the only story where Thomas plays a starring role, and it’s one of the most embarrassing moments of his life (to put it lightly). The other disciples had seen Jesus together. They had already touched his hands and side, and felt Jesus’s breath on them. And while all the rest of the disciples had finally moved out of the grimness of Holy Week, Thomas would not be moved until he saw proof with his own eyes.
In my study Bible, the note on this verse says, “Thomas refused the apostles’ ‘gospel’ about Jesus.” He refused the good news. I once gave a sermon on this same story and compared Thomas’s reaction to Mary Magdalene’s, how neither of them actually believed that Jesus would do what he said he was going to do. Neither of them believed in the resurrection until they saw it, the difference is how they reacted when they were faced with the truth. We don’t know exactly why Thomas didn’t believe his closest friends, the people he had been living with for three years. It’s easy to say that he doubted God’s abilities.
But I think beyond disbelief, there was hurt. I think a part of Thomas said, “Why would Jesus appear to my friends and not to me? Was I not good enough? Did I not also give everything up to follow him? If this is true, why wouldn’t Jesus wait for me?”
I am very good at holding on to hurt. Like Thomas, I stubbornly refuse the good news of the resurrection, because I want proof. The easiest way to win an argument is to provide evidence, right? There is so much evidence of suffering and of need in the world that it can be hard to listen to people telling us good news. My impulse is to trace the scars of the world before I talk about the joy there is to be grasped.
But ultimately the point of today’s gospel story is that Jesus comes to us in our locked room, in our demands for proof, in our newsfeeds inundated with bad news, and says, “Reach out your hand. Do not doubt, but believe.”
Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you. This is the Holy Spirit, who is always with you.”
When Thomas touched Jesus’s wounds, he cried out “My Lord and my God!” It doesn’t say what his posture was, but I like to believe he fell to his knees. Christian tradition holds that later Thomas travelled widely, and died in India while preaching the Gospel.
In a poem called “Manifesto,” Wendell Berry says, “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”
I pray we should all be so bold, as the disciples were, to let Jesus into the locked room. Lie down on the dirt floor. Like Thomas, make tracks in the wrong direction, and come back again. In this Easter season, may we be so bold as to practice resurrection.